EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
The architecture of Edinburgh is one of the constant delights of the city - no matter how many times I walk these streets (and I've walked them A LOT!) I'm always seeing new details or new features that I never noticed before.
But there are several instances in the city of architects dying before their buildings could be finished, and even (in one notable example) of a building being abandoned before it could be completed.
So here's a brief introduction to some of Edinburgh's unfinished architectural business...
GEORGE MEIKLE KEMP
Not an especially well known name amongst Edinburgh's architectural luminaries, Kemp was a joiner and carpenter by trade, but was also a self-taught architect who created one of the city's most significant structures.
In 1836, shortly after the death of the writer Sir Walter Scott, a public competition was launched to design a monument which would adequately celebrate this incredibly popular and influential figure. The top three designs would each win a prize of 50 guineas, and one of the designs would be built.
Kemp had no formal architectural training, and although he was a gifted draughtsman and had an eye for the detail of gothic structures of the Borders abbeys and Rosslyn Chapel, which he'd seen as a child, he'd never actually attained a design qualification. He submitted an entry to the competition under a pseudonym, and was thrilled when his design was chosen as one of the three winning entries.
Edinburgh was a city full of master builders and designers at that time, and his success (despite his lack of qualification) made him an unpopular figure in the architecture community. Nevertheless his design for a monument to Walter Scott commenced construction in 1840, and quickly took the 'gothic rocket' shape by which it is popularly known today.
In 1844, as the construction was nearing completion, tragedy struck. Kemp never made it home one evening, and his body was discovered floating in the canal near Fountainbridge a few days later. Suicide was ruled out, but whether it was foul play or accident which led to his drowning was never proven.
Kemp was buried in the St Cuthbert's kirkyard, and his ten-year-old son laid the final top stone of the monument to complete its construction six months after his father's death. Kemp never saw the finished monument which stands on Princes Street today.
Remembered as the architect who created the classical style of Edinburgh's New Town, Robert Adam came from a family of architects, and was such a notable figure in the late eighteenth century that on his death in 1792 he was afforded a burial plot within Westminster Abbey in London, lying alongside historical luminaries such as Mary Queen of Scots, Isaac Newton, Charles Drawin and (more recently) Stephen Hawking.
Adam's work across Scotland and the rest of the UK was extensive, but there were two major projects in Edinburgh which were left unfinished at the time of his death.
Most notably, perhaps, was the development of the University of Edinburgh's Old College, which Adam had designed as a double quad structure housing some of the university's prime teaching spaces. Construction began in 1788, but came to a halt four years later at the time of Adam's death.
Funding at this time was also a challenge, and so the building was left unfinished for nearly thirty years, until Adam's plans were passed to a luminary of the next generation of Edinburgh architects, William Playfair. Playfair made several major modifications to the plans - reducing the double quad to a single open space, for example, which reduced the cost of the construction significantly - and oversaw the development to its completion.
Adam would never see the finished Old College building, one of the most beautiful features in the Old Town, but neither would he see the completion of the site which would perhaps have the greatest impact and influence on the city as a whole.
The New Town of Edinburgh had been growing and developing steadily since 1767, with structures built westwards along George Street in sequence. The initial houses were all designed by different architects and developers, and the patchwork effect of styles and designs came to be considered unattractive, and ill-fitting with the highly stylised plans for the city.
Adam was commissioned to design all of the buildings around Charlotte Square, the western extent of the original New Town development, to create a harmonised sense of architectural style, and his plans started development in 1791, a year before his death.
Today, the style of Adam's Charlotte Square properties is reflected and reproduced right through the New Town, being taken on by later architects and developers and creating a unified sense of classicism which marks Edinburgh's New Town as a gem of Georgian style. Alas, Adam would never see Charlotte Square completed, nor would he know how influential his style and vision would be.
Another figure associated with the New Town would also never see the finished product. James Craig was the young architect whose grid-system plan for the New Town was revolutionary in the 1760s when he proposed it - three broad streets running east-west, bisected by smaller streets running north-south. It was a vision that was clean, classical, and in complete contrast to the narrow, winding lanes of the Old Town, and created an entirely different sense of space for the city's new era of expansion.
Although he died before the New Town with finished, Craig did perhaps have some sense of its impact and importance, as he came to resent the demands upon him for commissions that replicated his early grid system, and wrote to a friend complaining of the "monotony of the straight line" that developers sought from him.
Craig died in 1795, a quarter of a century before the first phase of the New Town was completed, and was buried in what was, for a long time, an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Playfair was the neo-classical architect of the nineteenth century who followed Robert Adam's lead in creating distinctive styles of work which continue to populate Edinburgh's city centre. Almost any building with Grecian-style columns can reliably be claimed as either built or inspired by Playfair, but there is one specific structure which remained unfinished not just during Playfair's lifetime, but right up to the modern day.
On the top of Calton Hill, overlooking both the Old and New Town areas of Edinburgh, stands a distinctive range of columns that helped to give Edinburgh one of its nicknames, 'the Athens of the north'. This structure was original intended as a full scale recreation of the Parthenon in Athens, a Grecian temple structure that would serve as a war memorial to the dead and wounded Scottish soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars.
The foundation stone for Playfair's design was laid in 1822 during the historic visit of King George IV, and fundraising efforts began to raise the estimated £42,000 that would be needed to complete the monument.
The first round of public subscriptions raised £16,000, and construction work began on the columns.
Then, the fundraising dried up, the public stopped donating, and money for the project became scarce. Various suggestions have been made for why the public lost interest in the project - partly the Napoleonic Wars were considered a dim and distant series of conflicts that the people of Scotland didn't have an immediate or visible connection to, and so their interest in commemorating them waned steadily. One other factor was the death of Walter Scott, and the subsequent fundraising for George Meikle Kemp's monument in his honour - as an immensely popular writer and social figure, it's plausible that where people had money spare to donate to a public monument, they favoured the celebration of Scott over the commemoration of the Napoleonic Wars.
Either way, a decision was made that Playfair's monument would remain unfinished, and construction stopped after the range of twelve columns which adorn the top of Calton Hill today. What was originally to be known as the National Monument is today better known as Edinburgh's Shame or Edinburgh's Disgrace, becase of the decision to leave it unfinished.
The last notable architect who never saw his work completed was the Catalan architect Enric Miralles. He was just 45 years old when he died of a brain tumor in July 2000.
The project that Miralles was working on at that time was considered to be the greatest of the buildings he designed during his career, and it can be found at the bottom end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, opposite the Palace of Holryoodhouse.
The modern Scottish Parliament Building is a controversial structure for several reasons, but the style and vision which Miralles brought to this previously neglected area of the city is the factor which visitors continue to find challenging. The building resists easy definition or understanding, and instead is a whole collection of symbolic references to Scottish culture, history, landscape and people - it's a truly eye-opening structure which was awarded the UK's highest architectural honour, the Stirling Prize, on its completion in 2004.
The building itself evolved over its construction, which may help to account for its variety of styles and features, but the most significant influence on its development was Miralles' death, which occurred just a year into the build and before the final vision of the parliament complex had been completed on the drawing board.
The project, suddenly without its lead architect, had to be taken over by another figure - and it was to be Miralles' wife, an Italian architect named Benedetta Tagliabue. She brought her own vision to Miralles' magnum opus, and saw it through to its completion.
Today the parliament is a highlight of the city, and deserves to be seen even if its style is considered to be challenging or ugly. The inside of the building is an incredible feat of light, space and style, and is worth exploring. Whilst he avoided much of the later controversy that came with the parliament, it's a shame Miralles didn't live long enough to see his intriguing building completed.
Explore more of Edinburgh's architecture with my private city walking tours!
History as we know it is made up of seemingly small moments of drama and action which have unintentionally massive consequences.
One such example occurred in Edinburgh on 23 July 1637, when an Edinburgh woman accidentally started a war between Scotland, England and Ireland, and set in motion a chain of events which wouldn't be fully settled until nearly thirty years later...
'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,' as the somewhat sexist proverb has it, and Jenny Geddes was one such woman. We can't know what was going on her head as she took her seat in St Giles' Cathedral that Sunday morning in July 1637 - doubtless she couldn't possibly have known that she was on the brink of almost single-handedly bringing the British Isles to civil war, in a conflict which would shape the political and military landscape of the nation for generations to come.
In one surging moment of outrage during the service, as the historical record has it, Geddes got to her feet and picked up the small three-legged stool upon which she had been sitting. "Daur ye say Mass in ma lug?" she shouted, as she hurled the stool at the head of the minister.
It was an explosive moment of rebellion which would have wide-ranging consequences for the whole of the British Isles.
In modern English, Geddes's accusation - 'dare you say Mass in my ear?' - had its roots in events from a number of years earlier, at the Scottish coronation of King Charles I at St Giles' Cathedral in 1633. Suffering from his adherence to the belief that as monarch he was directly appointed by God, known as the 'divine right of kings', Charles had insisted on an Anglican service for his coronation.
But since the Reformation in Scotland over sixty years previously, the Church of Scotland had taken a different path from the Anglican church, and saw its role in the joining of its congregants to God in a different way. Services had been overhauled and changed from the traditional Catholic-style Mass, and a new structure had been set up within the Scottish church that removed many of the power hierarchies that that the Church of England retained.
Regardless of these major differences which had evolved, Charles I sought to impose the Anglican book of Common Prayer on the Scottish church, against the wishes of many in the Scottish church who saw this as an attempt by an English king to impose his will on a church he didn't belong to.
The first time his authorised book of Common Prayer was to be read publicly at a service in Scotland was in St Giles', on 23 July 1637, and Jenny Geddes was one of many among the congregants that morning who resented the interference of the king in their experience of religious worship. Her outcry (accompanied by a deftly aimed wooden stool) was a passionate rejection of a liturgical form that she didn't recognise or adhere to.
Certainly the scene in St Giles' that morning would have been one of startling violence as a riot broke out amongst the congregation, and Jenny and a number of other protesters were thrown out of the church, taking their cause onto the streets of Edinburgh.
News of the uprising in Edinburgh led to similar riots breaking out in towns and cities across Scotland, and when the king refused to allow the Scottish church to maintain its own form of worship (distinct from the Anglican service) the people of Scotland sought to protect their interests by drawing up the National Covenant, a document that sought to enshrine the rights of Scotland to its own church, and one that operated distinct from the control of the king.
The National Convenant was signed at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh in 1638, and copies of the document were circulated across Scotland, as a powerful and passionate declaration of the Scottish church's independence from the English monarch.
Charles I resorted to military force to impose his will on the Scottish church, leading to the so-called Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, establishing a conflict between the authorities of Scotland, England and (by association) Ireland, known as the War of the Three Kingdoms. The following years led to the turbulence and trauma of the English Civil War, which would have a major impact on the nation - in 1649 Charles I executed for treason and the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell installed himself as Lord Protector (king in all but name) of Great Britain.
So it may be a stretch to suggest Jenny Geddes bore responsibility for all of the historical events which followed her outburst in St Giles', but certainly by speaking out against what she saw as an injustice she helped to foment Scotland's reputation for standing up for itself. And she became a minor celebrity in her own time - and the poet Robert Burns was so enamoured with her that he named his horse Jenny Geddes in her honour!
On such small moments great history turns, and often we forget (perhaps) that it can still be individuals whose actions or presence can lead to major historical changes. And whilst the story of the English Civil War is often told through the kings and military leaders who were involved, it's worthwhile remembering the disaffected Scotswoman whose outrage started it all.
Find out more about some of Scottish history's lesser known figures with my private Edinburgh city walking tours!
Share your scores on Facebook and challenge your friends to see how much they know!
Remember you can always find out more about the city with a private walking tour...
Visitors to Edinburgh today typically arrive either by plane or train – and, for the record, bringing a car to Edinburgh is generally to be considered a terrible idea! - but these means of mass transit are historically very new, and for a long time the vast majority of people simply wouldn't have had the time or means to be able to undertake travel beyond the locality in which they lived.
Add to this that many towns and cities were protected by defensive walls, and often charged a fee for people to enter – the poorest people of these places simply wouldn't have been able to afford to leave, as was the case in Edinburgh. It's remarkable to think that before the rise of railways in the 1830s and 40s, a majority of Edinburgh people would have spent their entire lives within the confines of the city walls.
But for those who could afford to travel – and had the need to do so – the seventeenth century saw the rise of stagecoach services across the UK.
The first public coach service in Britain launched in 1610, and connected Edinburgh to Leith, at that time an entirely separate town just a few miles to the north-east.
By 1658 there was a regular coach service connection London and Edinburgh. It ran fortnightly, and cost £4 to make the journey - equivalent to over £400 in modern currency. (Mail coaches ran more frequently to carry goods and messages between the cities.)
At that time, travelling between the two cities could take anywhere from 10 to 14 days on average, with overnight stops along the route – hence the 'stage coach', travelling in stages to change or rest the horses.
In 1712 an Edinburgh to London service was advertised as being able to "perform the whole journey in thirteen days without any stoppages [ie. unscheduled interruptions] (if God permits), having eighty able horses to perform the whole journey". This service left Edinburgh on Mondays in winter and Tuesdays in summer (to allow an extra day/night for bad weather), rested for the whole day of Sunday, and reached London the following Friday. It cost £4.10s.
It wasn't until 1734 that a weekly passenger connection between London and Edinburgh was announced, but either it suffered from lack of demand or simply couldn't make the journey in good enough time because by 1760 the service was back to just once a month.
Wealthier people might have paid for a private coach to make their journey, but a monthly service gives an indication of how many people had need of (and could pay for) a public service at that time.
Glasgow, with its shipping interests, had developed a service which connected the city to London in just 10 days by the 1770s, and Edinburgh could be reached from London within the same amount of time towards the end of that decade.
Once arrived in Edinburgh, visitors would be accommodated in coaching inns which existed primarily to serve this purpose. Some would be found in the Grassmarket, but a popular one on the other side of the city was the White Horse Inn, which stood just off the Royal Mile at Holyrood and had historic connections as a royal stable house – it was named for one of Mary, Queen of Scots's favoured horses.
The street nearby at that time was known as Watergate, as it afforded access to a supply of water from which the horses would be refreshed, and not far away was the start of the Great North Road, the main route which connected Edinburgh to London along the length of the east coast, itself based on the line of the old Roman route. Today that road is London Road, and it joins almost directly to the A1, which is turn becomes the M1 motorway, which leads straight to the heart of London – the historic route is still the most direct road connection between these two national capitals.
The White Horse Inn stood on what is today White Horse Close.
With the rise of railways in the 1830s the boom in faster transport options meant that travelling by horse drawn vehicle was no longer the optimal method of making journeys, especially between distant locations. Sending goods, mail and passengers by train was a faster and more efficient option, and the effect was immense – suddenly the means of travel was more available (and affordable) to ordinary, working people, and with the age of steam came the rise in the notion of holidays. For the first time people could travel for pleasure, and coastal destinations in particular became popular with families who otherwise spent their lives in dark, industrial cities.
The last mail coach from Edinburgh to London ran on 5 July 1847, and thereafter mail was sent by rail instead, and passenger travel by stage coach decreased rapidly around the same time.
Find out more about White Horse Close on a customised city walking tour, or my self-guided Close Encounters audio trail option.
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21